Carborundum Saw

It’s entertaining to come across references to computer security in fiction. Sometimes the reference may be grating, infused with hyperbole or laughably flawed. Sometimes it may seem surprisingly prescient, falling somewhere along a spectrum of precision and detail.

Even more rewarding is to encounter such a quote within a good book. Few readers who venture outside of modern bestsellers, science-fiction or otherwise, may recognize the author Stanisław Lem, but they may be familiar with the movie based on his book of the same name: Solaris. Lem has written several books, two of my favorites being The Cyberiad and Fiasco.

One Human Minute, from 1986, isn’t about computers in particular. The story is presented as a book review of an imagined tome that describes one minute of the entire Earth’s population. It also has this fun gem:

Meanwhile, computer crime has moved from fantasy into reality. A bank can indeed be robbed by remote control, with electronic impulses that break or fool security codes, much as a safecracker uses a skeleton key, crowbar, or carborundum saw. Presumably, banks suffer serious losses in this way, but here One Human Minute is silent, because — again, presumably — the world of High Finance does not want to make such losses public, fearing to expose this new Achille’s heel: the electronic sabotage of automated bookkeeping.1

Carborundum saw would also make a great name for a hacking tool.


1 Lem, Stanisław. One Human Minute. Trans. Catherine S. Leach. San Diego: Harvest Book, 1986. 34.

Electric Skillet

Of John Brunner‘s novels, I recommend reading Stand on Zanzibar first; it’s a well-known classic. Follow that with The Sheep Look Up. If you’re interested in novelty, Squares of the City has the peculiar attribute of being written to the rules of a chess game (the book’s appendix maps each character’s role to its relevant piece).

Two of Brunner’s books contain computer security concepts and activities. The first one, Shockwave Rider, was written in 1975 and is largely responsible for generating the concept of a worm. A character, Sandy, explains:

What you need is a worm with a completely different structure. The type they call a replicating phage.

The character continues with a short history of replicating phages, including one developed at a facility called Electric Skillet:

…and its function is to shut the net down and prevent it being exploited by a conquering army. They think the job would be complete in thirty seconds.

The main character, Nick Halflinger, creates a variant of the self-replicating phage. Instead of devouring its way towards to the destruction of the net, the program grows off data as a virtual parthenogenetic tapeworm. Nick is a smart computer sabotage consultant (among other things); his creation “won’t expand to indefinite size and clog the net for other use. It has built-in limits.” No spoilers, but the tapeworm has a very specific purpose.

In this 1988 novel, Children of the Thunder, Brunner mentions a logic bomb as he introduces a freelance writer who had been covering a computer security conference. Brunner didn’t coin this term, though. Malicious insiders were creating logic bombs at least since 1985 [1], famously described by a computer scientist in 1984, and known in the late 70s [2] (including a U.S. law covering cybercrime in 1979).

The history of the term is almost beside the point because the whimsical nature of the fictional version deserves note [3]:

Two months ago a logic bomb had burst in a computer at British Gas, planted, no doubt, by an employee disgruntled about the performance of his or her shares, which resulted in each of its customers in the London area being sent the bill intended for the next person on the list — whereupon all record of the sums due had been erased.

A paragraph later we’re treated to a sly commentary embedded in the description of the newspaper who hired the journalist:

The paper…was in effect a news digest, aimed at people with intellectual pretensions but whose attention span was conditioned by the brevity of radio and TV bulletins, and what the [editor] wanted was a string of sensational snippets about his readers’ privacy being infringed, bent programmers blackmailing famous corporations, saboteurs worming their way into GCHQ and the Ministry of Defense…”

The fictional newspaper is called the Comet, but it sounds like an ancestor to the dear El Reg (with the addition of pervasive typos and suggestive puns). It’s amusing to see commentary on the attenuation of attention spans due to radio and TV in 1988. It provides a multi-decade precursor to contemporary screeds against Twitter, texting, and Facebook.

Should you have attention left to continue reading, I encourage you to try one or more of these books.


[1] “Man Guilty in `Logic Bomb’ Case.” Los Angeles Times 4 July 1985, Southland ed., Metro; 2; Metro Desk sec.: 3. “[Dennis Lee Williams], who could face up to three years in prison when sentenced by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Parker on July 31, was convicted of setting up the program designed to shut down important data files.”
[2] Communications of the ACM: Volume 22. 1979. “…logic bomb (programmed functions triggered to execute upon occurrence of future events)…”
[3] Brunner, John. Children of the Thunder. New York: Ballantine, 1989. 8-9.